Should the Pebble Project be allowed to develop an open-pit mine at a copper-gold-molybdenum porphyry deposit in Southwest Alaska, plans call for it to be powered by natural gas from Happy Valley wells on the Kenai Peninsula. The natural gas would transported by pipeline to be constructed along the inlet side of the Sterling Highway to a compressor site north of Anchor Point, and then beneath the inlet and on to the mine site. Illustration provided by the Pebble Project.

By McKibben Jackinsky

Editor’s Note: This is part four in a 7-part series addressing the challenges Alaskans face having the oil and gas industry as neighbors.

The property Robert and Kate Boyan own along the Sterling Highway between Ninilchik and Anchor Point has a gorgeous view of Cook Inlet and 10,016-foot Iliamna, one of five volcanoes anchoring Cook Inlet’s western shore. Motorists frequently stop to admire the scene from a pullout just across the highway from the Boyans’ home and the gallery operated by Kate, a talented bead artist and author.

During the summer, charter fishing boats crisscross this section of the inlet. Larger vessels from ports around the Pacific ply the inlet’s deeper water. Lingering summer sunsets flood the sky with brilliant reds and oranges. Winter is quiet, but no less spectacular, drawing on a palette of soft pinks and purples.

In 2011, construction of an underground natural gas pipeline in the highway’s right of way was proceeding. It would deliver gas from wells near Anchor Point to ENSTAR Natural Gas customers in Anchorage. As sections of pipe north and south of the Boyans’ property were completed, the couple realized they were at ground zero, where the separate sections would be joined.

“But we didn’t think it would have any big impact,” Robert said. “They’d cut a clean little slice and drop it in.”

Not so. Contractors dug a trench for the pipeline a mere six feet from the front wall of the Boyans’ home. It was so deep that they had to stand on its edge to see the bottom. A sheet of metal over the trench’s opening allowed the Boyans to access their driveway. As work on the trench progressed, the Boyans’ front room window cracked. Robert reported it to someone he identified as a supervisor and was told there was no way the contractor would assume responsibility for every complaint received. When markers for a survey the Boyans had paid for were buried by the work being done, Robert notified the supervisor, who “got real snotty,” gave Robert a phone number and told Robert, “I can’t deal with you.”

It wasn’t the spreading oil and gas industry that upset Robert. It was the “nasty, confrontational game-playing attitude” he encountered. “It’s these people that are the problem.”

More evidence of the industry’s spreading impact came when Kenai Offshore Ventures and Buccaneer Energy brought the Endeavour-Spirit of Independence, a jack-up drilling rig, from Singapore to Alaska. Before being anchored at Buccaneer’s “Cosmopolitan” site north of Anchor Point, the rig was expected to spend eight days in Homer being prepared for the work ahead. After it became evident more work on the rig was necessary to meet United States Coast Guard requirements, Buccaneer hired Archer Drilling Co. to do the work and then fired the contractor for non-compliance. Archer filed a $6.5 million lawsuit and Buccaneer countersued, accusing Archer of causing $30 million in misrepresentations, misconduct and delays.

In March 2013, 218 days after it arrived in Homer, the rig was finally towed into position two miles offshore.

“If you walked across to the pullout, (the rig) was right in front of you, but…we were at just the right angle. … It was behind a stand of spruce trees,” Robert recalled of a natural shield blocking sight of the rig, but not deafening round-the-clock whining of the rig’s engines nor dimming the rig’s lights and “it was lit up like a town,” said Robert.

When the rig completed its work, it was towed to another site and finally left Alaska that November.

At its departure, Kate said she breathed a sigh of relief, her concern about the rig’s presence fueled by memories from March 1989. Cordova residents at the time, Robert and Kate witnessed firsthand the devastation occurring after the Exxon Valdez hit Bligh Reef and spilled more than 10 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound.

In a book about the spill written a decade later, Alaska author Sherry Simpson noted how people who witnessed the damage were encouraged to “get over it,” but Simpson went on to say that the Exxon Valdez oil spill was not easily gotten over. “Move on, yes. Make changes, certainly. Forget, never,” she wrote. Kate evidenced those enduring memories.

“It was awful with all the dead animals out there,” she said of the numerous carcasses she had seen. Aware of the many life forms dependent upon Cook Inlet, Kate said, it was her Exxon Valdez memories “I think of when I look at the rig.”

Development of the Pebble mine creates another intrusion. Plans call for it to be powered by Kenai Peninsula natural gas delivered to the site by a pipeline constructed on the inlet side of the Sterling Highway, past the Boyans’ home, to a compressor station near Anchor Point, then beneath the inlet and on to the mine site.

Hilcorp, the largest producer of oil and gas in the Cook Inlet-Kenai Peninsula area, maintains it has no involvement in the project. ENSTAR would not return calls. Asked about the wisdom of constructing a pipeline on the side of the highway that skirts many steep bluffs, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said that question would be considered with others.

How it would impact the Boyans is another unanswered question.

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